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Andrew Pyper Discusses Lost Girls, The North, Its Ghosts, and The Law. Nancy Wigston speaks with Andrew Pyper
by Nancy Wigston

Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper is a thirty-three year old native of Stratford, Ontario, who currently lives in Toronto. He holds a BA and MA in English Literature from McGill and a Law degree from the University of Toronto. Although he has been called to the bar, he has never practised law. Kiss Me, his first collection of short stories, was published in 1996 by Porcupine's Quill to warm reviews. His first novel, Lost Girls, was published by HarperCollins in June 2000. A mystery set in the haunted Ontario north country, Lost Girls revivifies nineteenth-century gothic tales, adding a modern twist. The best-selling book received rave reviews, won The Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for "Best First Novel," and was shortlisted for the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for First Time Author. Jersey Films, Danny De Vito's production company, purchased the movie rights.

Andrew Pyper was interviewed on the grounds of the Toronto Necropolis by Nancy Wigston.

Nancy Wigston: Barth Crane, the lawyer-narrator of Lost Girls, is, initially at least, a repellent figure. Any thoughts about your law school days?

Andrew Pyper: The [U of T] law school is controlled by Bay Street, and their recent selection of a Dean¨the year after left¨I think signaled a very unfortunate trend towards a more American-style business school model of legal education. This is sad because there are excellent teachers there¨of alternative legal theory, social justice, etc.,¨who are in many cases leaving because it is becoming an inhospitable environment for more liberal thought.

NW: When did you know that you were not going to practice law?

AP: I think I knew I didn't like it from the very beginning. The realization that I wanted, in a practical way, to write, occurred only when I was articling on Bay Street. I was sufficiently miserable then to think about completely changing my life.

NW: Let's start with Lost Girls. First of all, we've got a complex narrator, who is fairly loathsome but somehow you make us like and care about him¨as do the other characters. [Crown Prosecutor] Goodwin, for example, cares enough to ask him, 'Are you alright? Are you ill?' We shouldn't like him; he's snorting handfuls of coke, hanging out in strip clubs, yet he is confessional about his flaws. In the book he seems to expiate not only his shame at what happened in the lake when he was a kid [his cousin drowned when they were out canoeing] but also his shame at being a lawyer. Do you agree?

AP: I think you're dead on. He faces what I think all criminal defence lawyers have to eventually face¨the question of personal conviction versus legal principle. You defend clients who, let's face it, have, in most cases, done it. They're generally not good folk. When the case involves the murder of children, probably the worst thing known to us, and you're defending an individual you believe is guilty, it's cold comfort to rely on constitutional protections of the rights of the accused. It becomes very rarified and cold-seeming when you're the guy who actually has to attempt to release this person into the world. Barth actually has to face that barroom-philosophical predicament that people play with in a game of Scruples. He seems as well equipped to do it as anyone because of his apparent cynicism and his incredible gift for repression. That's where the ghost story starts. I wanted to structure it like a Victorian ghost story, in which there is both, a character who is skilled at burying an aspect of his or her psyche, and ghosts who disrupt those skills, bringing the repressed to the surface, a la Henry James' Turn of the Screw.

NW: As I remember, in Turn of the Screw, there was that hint that the child had actually been corrupted and you had to entertain the possibility of evil existing in children.

AP: Mm hmm.

NW: But I wasn't so sure, when I was reading your book, that the two girls Barth sees [missing and presumed killed by Thomas Tripp, Barth's client] were like that. At first, I thought they were locals dressed up like the missing girls; it didn't occur to me until much later that they may have been apparitions.

AP: That tension is deliberate. It delights me to hear that you were suspended midway between those two possibilities.

NW: So the ambiguity was deliberate?

AP: Yeah. I'm disappointed when readers say it was one or the other; I feel I've failed. Just as in Turn of the Screw, when you finish the story, and you think, what really happened, how should I interpret it? That's where the real horror comes in¨that feeling that we live in a world that is perhaps less stable than we'd like to believe.

NW: A lot of mirroring goes on in the book too¨Barth is constantly seeing himself in other people; he sees himself mirrored in Laird [a teenaged acquaintance of the girls], in Doug [the town's librarian/reporter] and of course Tripp, the client. They all recognize each other.

AP: Yes.

NW: Did your lawyer friends see themselves mirrored in Barth at all?

AP: Well, my friends liked him. They appreciated the comic in the more extreme aspects of his nature but they were quick to make it clear that he wasn't them. And he is extreme; I don't know anyone like him.

NW: Were you going to be a criminal lawyer?

AP: If I ever had to practice law, it would have been criminal law, because it's the most interesting. You're in the courtroom more than other types of lawyers and the issues are real. Whereas on Bay Street they tend to be abstractions of exchanges of money. But having said that, I would have been terrible at it. Criminal lawyers work very hard. Frankly I don't think I would have been prepared to work that hard.

NW: I've known lawyers who played roles, like actors, the way Barth and the partners in his firm, Graham and Bert, play their cynical tough guy roles.

AP: Oh yes, these guys¨and when I say guys I include women, because they aren't that different¨are self-caricatures. They play at this game. I think they need to. Physicians who perform life-saving surgery tend to do the same.

NW:Near the beginning of the book, Barth drives five hours north to Murdoch, where the girls have disappeared. He thinks about the Canadian literature he studied in school, which always seemed to focus on a pioneer family building a cabin and ending with the man freezing to death. What writers did you study in school?

AP: It was very hit and miss at that time, in the mid-seventies. The hits would have been early Alice Munro and the misses would be some short story writers or Sinclair Ross. [The settings] were in these little railway towns with grain silos. We were told this was Canadian literature yet it didn't in any way represent-look like, feel like, taste like-semi-suburbanized southwestern Ontario, which is where I grew up. That's not to say that all literature needs to directly reproduce your personal reality, but it felt as foreign as anything else. At that age I felt more linkage to stuff I was accidentally grabbing on the library shelf, like Graham Greene, even though he was writing about spies in Cuba. I read all sorts of stuff and all of it was accidental-everything from Graham Greene to Stephen King to Alice Munro-and a lot of the old dead white guys-I was attempting James' The Golden Bowl at age fourteen and of course not understanding a thing. I didn't have a reading mentor..

NW: I'm just wondering where the opinions come from in the book? We assume they are yours as much as Barth's.

AP: More or less.

NW: Then what ignited your career path?

AP: Maybe just a storytelling impulse. [Pyper is the youngest, of five siblings, by nine years.] I played a lot by myself when I was a kid. My parents were older and immigrants. They weren't really hooked up with small town society of hockey parents and so on¨though I played hockey. My dad was an Irish eye surgeon. We didn't play catch; we didn't camp. So I stayed in my room a lot and read and wrote stories. It was less a matter of a mentor figure introducing me to the wonderful world of words, and more just an accident of isolation.

NW: Do you think the North could represent our unconscious, the place where we push things away?

AP: Yes.

NW: Barth dismisses this in the beginning. He calls it miles and miles of humanlessness. Yet in fact, what happens is very similar to that which he dismisses in the beginning: People don't freeze to death, but we get that phrase "So cold" repeated again and again, and he is frozen emotionally. You take this coked-up urbanite, throw him into the North and what happens to him is what happened to those "settlers," who in many cases were far more sophisticated than the places they found themselves in. Did you do that deliberately? Or were you after some kind of reinvention?

AP: Well, I think it was some kind of reinvention. What was deliberate, was taking some of the tensions and principles of a nineteenth-century ghost story and applying them in a new world setting, where we don't have haunted manors and foggy moors, but instead black flies and muddy lakes, and populating that story with decidedly late twentieth-century people and late twentieth-century predicaments. Basically I was doing the same thing nineteenth-century ghost stories did, which was to present the possibility of the uncanny as a projection of psychological anxiety. At the same time, I left open the possibility that the unnatural, the horrible, actually exists, so that there is a Lady in the Lake [the vengeful spirit of an immigrant woman hounded to her death by locals decades earlier] that does actually from time to time pull people down. It only makes sense if you partly believe in that. Typically, readers who have said to me that they liked certain aspects of the novel but wished it weren't a ghost story, tend to be people who are unable to even remotely believe in the possibility of the Lady in the Lake. And they wished the book didn't make those kinds of commitments. To my mind, [without her] it would only be some kind of slightly trumped-up murder mystery¨strictly formulaic.

NW: Were you surprised by the book's success?

AP: Oh yes. I knew it was an unusual book within contemporary Canadian publishing¨not to say that it's capital "O" original¨it's not, but considering the kind of books that tend to be published by mainstream Canadian houses, I knew Lost Girls wouldn't have many brothers and sisters. I hoped it would be published in Canada. That's about as ambitious as I got.

NW: You certainly made an enormous leap from your first collection of stories, Kiss Me, to this book, but there seem to be thematic connections. One thing I noticed was the idea of home; for instance in "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," the narrator is cut off from his home, his father. In another story, a boy going away to camp is warned, "Don't get homesick," and he doesn't know what it means exactly, only that it's a weakness. Most of the homes the characters come from are evanescent, tenuous, and the same is true of Lost Girls.

AP: Barth's apartment is empty.

NW: Yes, and all the places he sees or stays in are decrepit or vacant.

AP: I think that is a valid observation. This tendency may arise from a variety of sources, one of which is simply the fact of being Canadian. All Canadians to some degree are concerned with home, because most of us have come from elsewhere. I think part of what we're feeling right now in our literary arts is the growing pain of recognizing that yes, this is largely an urbanized country. The vast majority of Canadians live in cities and yet those cities are few and far between. It's a paradoxical post-modern condition of being Canadian. A lot of things we formerly defined ourselves as¨small town living, agriculturally employed, no-nonsense folk¨are no longer the way things are, and the more this picture becomes less accurate the less we know ourselves. Of course many people resist the idea that we're becoming more urbanized.

NW: Do you see yourself as a spokesman for your generation of writers? You have been quoted this way.

AP: No, I don't. It's presumptuous and I'm not speaking for anyone but myself.

NW: Yet you seem to have found a voice that vividly conjures up your generation.

AP: The initial preoccupation is to tell stories, and then you engage the self¨all the accidents and histories and facts and mistakes that make up you. I happen to be thirty-three and share many of the same anxieties and feelings as my contemporaries.

NW: What kind of stories did you tell when you were a kid?

AP: Oh, war stories¨stories in which things happen. And that's still something I'm very interested in doing. I think that a lot of the work that I tend not to seek out for myself is that highly rarified 'literary' writing where bugger-all happens. The literature of non-event and pure insularity. I really don't need anymore insight into wandering about. I like plot. I like stuff happening. As obvious as that would seem, it's not especially fashionable. Plotlessness seems to be ubiquitous, at least in Canada. A lot of my contemporaries seem very interested in highly fractured post-structuralist forms; they're aggressively anti-plot.

NW: What writers do you read?

AP: Right now I'm reading Ian McEwan, Paul Theroux, Alice Munro.

NW: In that group, Alice Munro seems to be the one that doesn't belong.

AP: I like her plots, her time-shifts, her tight packages, like Richard Ford. I find in these writers an absolute assurance about life perspectives, and yet they're never presumptuous. They have wisdom.

NW: And what are your working on now?

AP: A first draft of a novel that takes place outside of Canada, in South America, but it's populated by Canadians who are, again, homeless.

NW: Are they, like so many of your characters, 'home-sick'?

AP: Like so many of us, perhaps, they're haunted by a sense of home from which they are apart, looking for home¨it's like love, really. You yearn for it, but it can break you up, break your heart when you do find it.

NW: Do you, like so many Canadians, long to be elsewhere?

AP: I might like to live, say, in London for a few years, but always knowing that the turtle in its shell is stamped 'Canadian.' I'm a cultural nationalist, whereas some of my colleagues are not. I don't believe in a really fluid internationalism.

NW: Lost Girls includes¨along with the ghosts, the guilt, the shame¨a rediscovery of the cottage where Barth stayed as a child with his parents, where he and Caroline set out in the canoe on the evening she was drowned. It's a very healing encounter with home; he finds his father's books and embraces the ghosts of his past.

AP: Yes, but the novel ends with him standing at the playground gate in Toronto watching the children. This indicates a partial recovery only.

NW: Hmm. Yet the last image of the cold, the snow¨"a shimmering cloud of frozen crystals"¨is optimistic, I thought.

AP: Good.

NW: Actually it's getting cold here [we're seated on a nineteenth century gravestone, the name weathered and illegible]. The sun has moved away.

AP: I'm glad the sun is shining though, I'm sensitive to graveyards. ˛

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